Dear Modern Farmer,
My back yard is no good for growing food. It’s got terrible sun exposure, the soil is poor, and it’s a small space to begin with. My front yard, however, is southern facing and beautiful. I think I could get a good harvest out there, but can I legally grow food in my front yard?
Front Yard Farmer
Dear Front Yard Farmer,
The answer, of course, is it depends. I’d like to be able to tell you “no problem!” – and personally, I think it should be that way – but there have been more than a few recent cases where front yard gardeners have found themselves in hot compost tea.
For example, there’s the now infamous account of the misdemeanor citation issued in 2011 to an Oak Park, Michigan homeowner for growing vegetables in a raised bed in her front yard. The city claimed that vegetables could not be grown in front yards, and so the homeowner faced up to 93 days in jail for her actions. Eventually, the city dropped the charges against her. Last year, in Newton, Massachusetts, some front yard gardeners found themselves in trouble with inspectional services because of their 13-foot high wooden “structure” that had thirty tomato plants hanging from it. The owners were ordered to remove the structure and plants because they did not have the proper zoning permits in place (you can read more about their plight on their blog). Earlier this year, there were reports that a West Des Moines, Iowa, resident pressed city officials to create an ordinance banning front yard vegetables and fruit trees, but that measure was ultimately dropped by the resident and not otherwise pursued by the city.
There are similar reports about cities and towns issuing enforcement orders against homeowners and renters growing front yard gardens, such as in DeKalb County, Georgia; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Orlando, Florida (the homeowners in Orlando also have a blog of the events); and Ferguson, Missouri (those tenants kept a blog as well), just to name a few. In fact, it is somewhat telling that the Mother Earth News website has a page with a running list of these kinds of “illegal gardens” that have appeared in the media over the past few years.
So, can you grow front yard vegetables? Here’s what you need to check before planting that first tomato seed:
Your local zoning code. Most municipalities specify to some degree what can (or can’t) be grown or used as groundcover in front yards. For example, some zoning codes will expressly state what kind of plants can be used in front yards (shrubs, grasses, annuals, species, etc.), the permissible spacing and/or height of vegetation, the minimum percentage required for front yard vegetation, or whether free-standing arbors and trellises are allowed. In Sacramento, California, front yard vegetable gardens are expressly authorized under zoning, provided that they are properly “landscaped, irrigated and maintained” and meet some height restrictions in certain portions of the yard like driveways and corners. Other zoning codes can be quite vague, use undefined terms or rely on traditional, if not dated, definitions and interpretations of what a front yard should look like. This is often when problems arise. For example, when a zoning code permits “annuals”, technically that would include tomatoes and zucchinis, but was this really the intent of the code drafters, or did they mean things like zinnias and geraniums? Indeed, undefined language was the issue in the Oak Park, Michigan, matter where the code’s allowance for “suitable live plant material” in front yards apparently did not include vegetables, thereby leading to the misdemeanor citation.
While I do not advocate breaking the law, practically speaking, if you grow some basil, dwarf eggplants and the like among the shrubs in your front yard – edible landscaping, if you will – no one is likely to notice. Things usually start to go awry once homeowners start digging up lawns, adding raised beds or installing large support structures, leading some neighbors to get a bit unnerved and complain to local officials. It boils down usually to one or both of two major gripes: fears about diminished property values and a dislike for the vegetable garden aesthetic. So, before investing time and money in raised beds, structures for climbing vegetables or tilling under your existing lawn for multiple rows of corn, check with your local zoning office to get some answers. Otherwise, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a violation notice if the practice is not authorized in your community.
Your deed, lease, or condominium documents. Certainly many leases and condominium documents have a long list of prohibited activities, and some deeds contain restrictive covenants or identify easements that cannot be obstructed (i.e. raised beds might become an issue). It is always a good idea to check these kinds of property documents to make sure there are no restrictions regarding this type of use in your yard.
Homeowners association regulations. If you live in a relatively newer residential subdivision or neighborhood, it is possible that your home or condominium is part of a homeowners association (HOA). The HOA will have its own set of rules about what you can and cannot do in your front yard. Many of these regulations are notoriously restrictive, even down to the color of paint that can be used on your front door. However, whether the HOA actively enforces the rules does vary among communities; some HOA’s are laid back while others are quite aggressive in making sure everyone follows the rules. Even if front yard gardens are prohibited by your HOA regulations, you might be able to request waiver from the HOA, or seek to amend the rules altogether, but those outcomes still ultimately depend on the acceptance of an aesthetic that might not fit in with the overall neighborhood scheme.
Personally, I don’t think it should be that complicated (or regulated) to grow your own vegetables. It seems like a lot of the opposition comes from a place of novelty (neighbors who either might not either understand the importance of growing one’s own food or embrace a different kind of aesthetic beauty). Not helping matters is an outdated and often slow-to-change regulatory scheme that takes a lot of time to bend and shift with changing societal wants and needs. But hopefully, the growing awareness about local and self-grown food will shift these factors in a direction favorable to people like you.
Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and for educational purposes only. It is not intended as specific legal or any other advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing thereof does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. The reader is encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney or other professional when an opinion is needed.
Kristen M. Ploetz, Esq., is a zoning/land use attorney and Founder/Manager of Green Lodestar Communications & Consulting, LLC.